People Smugglers in Indonesia: Definitely Not Out of Business



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Antje Missbach, an associate of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne and a research fellow at the School of Social Sciences at Monash University. This post is the second installment of Border Criminologies themed series on Human Smuggling organised by Gabriella Sanchez.

When the Liberal/National coalition won the Australian election in September 2013, they immediately implemented new border and asylum policies, primarily intended to ‘stop the boats,’ under the name Operation Sovereign Borders. Asylum seekers coming to Australia via Indonesia could no longer land on Australian shores and seek protection, but were either taken to island camps in Nauru and Manus (Papua New Guinea) or returned to their country of origin or to Indonesia, their last country of their last embarkation. The ultimate goal wasn’t just to stop the flow of maritime asylum seekers, but also to crack down on people-smuggling networks thriving on both sides of the Arafura Sea. The Australian government’s declared goal was to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model,’ a formula introduced by the preceding Labor government.

A smuggling boat jointly intercepted by Indonesia and Australia
Between 2009 and mid-2013, more than 50,000 asylum seekers reached Australia with the help of people smugglers. While a number of former asylum seekers based in Australia acted as financiers, asylum seekers and refugees based in Indonesian acted as middlemen, organisers, and facilitators for their willing and solvent compatriots (see my recent article here). The most perilous part of the people smuggling venture―transporting the asylum seekers on rickety boats―was carried out by Indonesian fishermen. Information obtained by the Australian Lawyers Alliance from the Australian Federal Police from 2008 to December 2013 revealed that 568 Indonesians were charged for crew-related offences in people-smuggling ventures, for which those found guilty face a mandatory five years in an Australian gaol.

Although the number of boats headed for Australia has decreased since September 2013, the success of Operation Sovereign Borders is highly questionable and the Australian approach shouldn’t be applied in other global situations. Not only has Australia, a party to the 1951 International Refugee Convention, broken a crucial clause of the Convention by returning asylum seekers to places where their lives are at risk, but it funds and condones human rights violations in the Australian-sponsored camps on Manus Island and Nauru.  

A smuggling boat jointly intercepted by Indonesia and Australia
While asylum seekers no longer reach Australian territory by boat, tens of thousands still run for their lives and reach transit countries in the Southeast Asia. To limit Indonesia’s attraction as a transit country on the way to Australia, the Australian government ceased the regular resettlement of recognised refugees arriving from Indonesia in late 2014, claiming that this would ‘take the sugar off the table.’ Meanwhile, registrations of newly arrived asylum seekers at the Indonesian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) fluctuate between 200 and 1,300 a month through 2015.

Despite Australia’s efforts to get Indonesian law enforcement officers to cooperate in fighting the ‘evil trade,’ they have achieved little. Indonesian police are now less reluctant to arrest smugglers, but they usually arrest the boats’ crews rather than recruiters or facilitators, leaving the extensive networks more or less intact. New sources of income have opened up for smugglers within Indonesia. Given the lengthy time asylum seekers now spend in transit, most run out of money sooner or later. Unable to pay the inflated prices for accommodation in Jakarta, many have no option but to sacrifice their freedom for food and lodging. They surrender to Indonesian migration authorities who usually place them in immigration detention centres that largely resemble Indonesian prisons.

Because of the limited number and capacity of detention centres, more and more asylum seekers report being charged an ‘entry fee.’ Special community shelters are also available, but placement in these follows time in the detention centre system. Because standards and treatment differ from one centre to another, choosing a detention centre carefully is advisable. For those lacking personal links with centre inmates, smugglers provide information about such things as where there are vacancies and where imprisonment periods are shortest. They organise transportation for asylum seekers and help them collect money sent to them while they are detained, so that they can buy favours from guards to make their stay more bearable. Many smugglers cheat and take advantage of their clients, whom they had helped bring into Indonesia in the first place.

So, no, Australia has contributed nothing to stopping the people-smuggling networks through Operation Sovereign Borders. Its policies fail to acknowledge that the only way to fight people smuggling effectively is to make the networks redundant by offering more regular and formal resettlement pathways for asylum seekers and refugees. Resettlement options for refugees stuck in Indonesia have further decreased as the current global flow of asylum seekers continues to increase.

A smuggling boat jointly intercepted by Indonesia and Australia
Quite to the contrary, the Australian government is currently facing renewed and serious allegations of involvement in people smuggling, outlined in a report by Amnesty International. This report confirms revelations made by Indonesian police in June 2015 that Australian officials paid an Indonesian boat crew more than US$30,000 to convince them to return asylum seekers headed for New Zealand to Indonesia. Amnesty International argues that Australia not only put lives at risk, but also committed a transnational crime. Australian Minister Dutton dismissed the allegation, commenting that the report ‘goes beyond the pale.’

It’s unlikely that there will be an independent investigation into these events. Given the many other allegations of misconduct under Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian government would be well advised to allow for greater transparency and accountability. It will take more than the constant dismissal of public debate by big-mouthed ministers to fend off the allegations of state-driven people smuggling.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Missbach, A. (2015) People Smugglers in Indonesia: Definitely Not Out of Business. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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Human smuggling


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